Face-to-Face With Wildlife in Florida’s Hidden Wilderness

Encounters with massive alligator gars, manatees, and rattlesnakes are all par for the course when National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward embarks on a 1,000 mile, 70 day trek to protect Florida’s hidden wilderness.

Check out the trailer from the expedition's feature film, The Forgotten Coast: Return to Wild Florida.

Ward founded the conservation advocacy group Florida Wildlife Corridor, named for the 6.3 million acres of land the group is working to connect, protect, and restore in order to help Florida’s wildlife thrive. "One of our team members, Joe Guthrie, put GPS collars on black bears in central Florida. So we were following in the footsteps of wildlife based on that science, bringing attention to the corridors that wildlife need to travel from one place to another," Ward explains.

These pathways, dubbed the Corridor, are being threatened by intense development. "You lose about 20 acres every hour to development," says Ward. "At that rate, a lot of these wild lands like our state and national parks will be surrounded by development, forever cut off from one another. The Florida Wildlife Corridor is a network of public and private lands that work together to form a continuous path for wildlife in the state of Florida."

As Ward, Guthrie, and fellow expedition member Mallory Dimmitt followed in the paths of wildlife, it became immediately apparent how dangerous it is for animals to try to pass through developed land. "There's a sense that the snakes are going to get you, the alligators are going to get you and drag you off; Watch out for the bears, watch out for the coyotes. But in truth the most dangerous thing we did was cross roads."

Ward thinks that part of the challenge in getting support to protect Florida’s wilderness is that for many, Florida conjures up images of amusement parks, tourist destinations, or presidential elections gone awry; many are unaware of Florida's rich ecosystems bursting with wildlife. Even Ward himself—an eighth-generation Floridian—briefly underestimated the untold stories brimming within Florida. "After college I felt like I needed to go to the Amazon, to central Africa, to the Sahara Desert to explore places and to capture stories that hadn't been shared. I've realized through time, that there's a lifetime's worth of exploration opportunities right here in my own backyard."

Beyond wildlife, people’s livelihoods also rely on thriving ecosystems "We spent time with an oysterman named Kendall Shoelles. This oysterman has been working and tonging in those waters for three generations. He's not a biologist, he didn't study environmental science, but you'll never meet a stronger water quality advocate. He sees every single day the effects of decisions that are made relating to land and water many, many miles up stream from his shore,” Ward says. “Those are the experiences that I really treasure is to be able to be there with a multigenerational oysterman and see that bay and see that land through his eyes.”

As a conservation photographer, Ward embeds with researchers and conservationists like Guthrie and Dimmitt, to help tell the story of their work to wider audiences. This seems like a natural partnership, but conservation photography is actually a relatively new field. In fact, Ward wrote the very first thesis on the subject. "I was studying biology and anthropology and I got a camera. At the same time that I was learning that craft of photography I recognized how useful it was to tell the story of conservation that I was learning through the science," says Ward. He was a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers in 2005. "The establishment of conservation photography was really a call to action.” The life support systems of our planet is not going to be here for us all if we don't do something about it.

There are a lot of people that are really yearning to know the story of what is wild Florida and I see it as my role to tell that story."

Ward is a grantee of both the National Geographic Society's Conservation Trust and Expeditions Council. Learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at natgeo.org/grants and see more explorers at work in the #bestjobever series.

Producer/Editor: Nora Rappaport
Series Producer/Graphics: Chris Mattle
Video: Eric Bendick and Joe Davenport
Photos and Featured Image: Carlton Ward Jr.